This photo captures members of a Kenyan LGBT church making preparations for their weekly Sunday worship service. To safeguard their anonymity, the photo only shows their back.
The service takes place in a room in a commercial property, hired for a couple of hours every Sunday. The room is a rather plain space, and in order to create a more intimate sphere a curtain is carefully put on the wall in the front. Unsurprisingly, the curtain is in rainbow colours. The rainbow is, of course, the international symbol of LGBT pride. Yet it also is a biblical symbol referring to God’s covenant with humankind in all its diversity. Both meanings are naturally integrated in the context of these LGBT Christians worshipping. The colours symbolise that they belong to what Desmond Tutu has described as “the rainbow people of God”.
In July-August 2015, I made a first fieldwork trip to Kenya for a new research project, on the relationship between Christianity and LGBT activism in the country. During that trip, several people mentioned the existence of “a gay church” in Nairobi. Obviously, my curiosity was piqued immediately. I managed to get in touch with some of the leaders, and on the last Sunday before my departure I was able to attend one of their services. That Sunday afternoon, I encountered a group of about 25 young people in the office space of an LGBT rights organization, where they had gathered for prayer, worship and preaching. When I returned in 2016 for further research, they had moved to another venue.
The current venue is a room in a building along a busy street in Nairobi’s central business district. This location is convenient, as it is easily reachable by church members coming from all parts of the city. But perhaps this location is also strategic and prophetic: in the midst of the hectic of downtown Nairobi, with all the noise of traffic, street vendors and evangelists, there is also a gathering of LGBT Christians. They meet to praise God, read the Bible, receive inspiration, pray for one another, and to discuss matters of sexuality and faith – in short, they meet to share their lives. Their presence is an anticipation of a city that is yet to come, a city with freedom not only for the expression of religion but also of diverse sexualities.
One Sunday, buying phone credit in a small shop next to the building where the church meets, I saw a poster on the wall of the shop, reading:
“Kenya is God’s pillah [sic] point. That is why ‘they’ want to destroy and prepare it for the 666, the Satan’s mark (the beast) by making it to be a nation of gays and lesbians.”
The poster can be seen as illustrative of popular, religious-inspired anti-homosexual sentiments in Kenya’s public culture. In the light of that reality, the weekly gathering of a group of young LGBT Christians in the centre of the capital, in all its simplicity presents a disruptive counter-narrative.
The weekly services of this small Nairobi-based LGBT church are indeed simple, at first sight not pretentious at all. Yet through my ethnographic research, I discovered that the church considers itself part of a great mission. This mission was captured in a phrase frequently used in sermons and referred to in interviews: “Rewriting the Book of Acts”. This phrase refers to one of the books in the New Testament, called Acts of the Apostles, which narrates the emergence of the early Christian church.
The discourse of “rewriting the book of Acts” had been introduced by an African American bishop, working for an organisation that aims to promote a black progressive, LGBT affirming Christianity, both in the United States and on the African continent. This organisation, the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, supports the Kenyan LGBT church, and the bishop frequently visits and provides mentorship to its leaders. Preaching about the Book of Acts during one of these visits, he had drawn parallels between the early Christian church and his congregation of young LGBT Christians. Both find themselves in highly precarious situations, experiencing major challenges and difficulties as they try to practice their faith and spread the good news of God’s love for humankind. The parallel served to encourage the congregation: they are part of God’s plan, and they are the small beginnings of a movement that will make a difference in Kenya, in Africa, in the world.
As a contribution to this mission, the church provides a socially and spiritually empowering space to Kenyan LGBT people of faith, who are often ostracised because of their sexuality by their families, communities, and the churches they used to attend. The church also seeks to build relationships with other LGBT organisations in the country, as well as with other churches and Christian organisations. The aim is twofold: promoting an understanding in the Kenyan LGBT community that Christian faith can affirm sexual diversity, and advocating a recognition in Kenyan Christian circles that LGBT people can be people of faith, too, and that an affirmative Christianity is possible.
The sceptical reader may think that it is rather pretentious for a couple of dozen of young people to think that they can shape the future direction of Kenyan Christianity. Yet, we know that the history of Christianity is full of such stories, of small beginnings that on a longer term have a great impact, and so is global LGBT history.
Dr Adriaan van Klinken is associate professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, and director of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. His research focuses on religion and public life in contemporary Africa, specifically in relation to issues of gender and sexuality. He is currently completing a monograph entitled Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism and Arts of Resistance in Africa.
Read more about this Kenyan LGBT church and the African American organisation it is linked to in: Adriaan van Klinken, ‘Culture Wars, Race and Sexuality: A Nascent Pan-African LGBT Affirming Movement and the Future of Christianity’, Journal of Africana Religions 5/2 (2017), 217-238.